The airspace is rumbling, and it’s not from the usual summertime convective activity. From Papua New Guinea to Iceland, increased seismic activity reminds us volcanos are a “popup” issue that can have an impact on air traffic.  However, authorities are more prepared than ever to understand and minimize their impact. Recognizing the effects of volcanic ash (VA) on air travel, institutions, such as NASA, have spent a good deal of time studying and attempting to predict the movement of VA. Their ultimate goal is to forecast dispersion, so that air service navigation providers and airlines are better positioned to handle air traffic flow management in an effected area.

The aviation impact of volcanic eruptions

Since volcanos occur very rarely, it’s easy to put off thinking about their impact. But the 2010 activity in Iceland reminds us how important it is to learn and maintain lessons from prior events.

Volcanic ash (VA) can damage aircraft in several ways: windshield crazing, plugging of sensors, and contamination of hydraulic systems.  When ingested into a jet engine, volcanic particulate matter forms glassy deposits. Fortunately, like exposure of our skin to ultraviolet rays, the effects of aircraft exposure to volcanic ash are cumulative: longer or more intense exposure leads to more damage. The good news is this allows us the opportunity to prevent exposure.

Ideally, aircraft should stay well clear of VA. But it’s hard to stay clear of something when you don’t know where it is or in which direction it is moving. Therein lies the rub. VA can have huge impact on aviation even without a single aircraft encounter. The Eyjafjallajokull eruption in 2010 caused a large closure of airspace, which from a safety standpoint, this was a huge success. However, it came with a huge price tag: 100,000 flight cancellations and a $2.6 billion cost to the airlines. In hindsight, the massive closure of the airspace was an overreaction. Not knowing precisely where the VA was, and more importantly for aircraft rerouting, where it will be, forced European authorities to close far more airspace than some considered necessary.

Incorporating lessons learned from 2010

Air navigation service providers, airlines, and weather service providers are better prepared now than they were in 2010. The FAA emergency response committee at the Air Traffic Control System Command Center (ATCSCC) and the European Aviation Crisis Coordination Cell (EACCC) anticipate all types of disruptive events.

But one of the key drivers to informed decision making is the flow of accurate and timely information. Without this, airlines and air navigation communities are forced to add huge buffers to their reroutes around the VA clouds. Since aircraft routes have to be planned hours (sometime days) in advance, it’s not just a question of where the VA is, but where it will be in the future. Short and medium-range forecasts of volcanic ash movement are vitally important. One of the big takeaways from the 2010 eruption is that airlines should be provided greater degrees of freedom in determining their rerouting strategies, as opposed to applying a one-size-fits-all solution. While the ultimate decisions about flight safety rest in the hands of the operator, there is a collective responsibility among all stakeholders, including ANSPs, airports, and even travelers, to ensure that safety trumps all other considerations.

Better tracking and forecasting

The NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, USGS, NOAA, Metron Aviation, and other partner organizations have ongoing research to fully utilize and disseminate satellite SO2 and ash volcanic data and model forecasts to improve Decision Support System (DSS) for early warning. VA Advisories are provided by VA Advisory Centers (VAACs). VAACs rely on 24/7 manual analyses of multiple data sources including real–time satellite geostationary imagery, ancillary information (e.g., pilot reports) and free-running ash dispersion forecasts. The manual analyses can be augmented with automatic tools to produce more accurate VA advisories. As a result of NASA research, next generation VA decision support tools will provide more dynamic, continuous update forecasts of 4D ash and SO2 concentrations, refined by satellite observations, which will lead to greater accuracy and spatial/temporal resolution than we have today.

Metron Aviation assists NASA by ensuring that the improvements are incorporated in existing or future decision support tools. Metron Aviation’s experience in developing ATM DSS (Decision Support Systems) for use by the FAA, airlines and other key players will be used to help shape the effectiveness of the NASA research. This will ensure that they are relevant and more readily transitioned into operational use.

The next step will be for aviation stakeholders to embrace the new technologies and determine how they can best apply them. Common situational awareness will be key; best practices from the collaborative decision making movement in traffic flow management should be generously applied.

Working toward the Future

The good news is we know where the active regions are and our knowledge of dispersion today leaves better-equipped to respond to volcanic action globally than ever before. Though, precise geological forecasting of the timing and magnitude of volcanic eruptions is a long way off, our continued research will position us to handle these “popup” problems as they occur. 

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Part III – What does “Best-Served” mean?
By: Emily Bromberg, Matt Elliott and Shervin Ahmadbeygi

In the last edition we explored the complexities of defining “Best Equipped” or “Most Capable.” Choosing how (or even whether) to “best serve” the flights we’ve designated as “best equipped,” however, is another complicated issue that involves potential changes to both ATC operations and policy.

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Part II – What does “Best-Equipped” mean?
By: Emily Bromberg, Matt Elliott and Shervin Ahmadbeygi

Even though the meaning, intent, and language surrounding BEBS might seem a bit murky, one thing is certain: increased throughput and efficiency in the National Airspace System is a good thing, and certain equipment helps to enable this. But how does “better” equipment result in increased throughput or capacity? And what do we mean by “best equipped,” anyway? Or even “equipped,” for that matter? The answers aren’t so simple.

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Part I – Genesis
By: Shervin Ahmadbeygi and Matt Elliott

If you’re actively involved in any aspect of the FAA’s NextGen program, you’ve heard the storm of rhetoric and buzzwords surrounding the Best Equipped Best Served (BEBS) strategy. The program has been rebranded over the years as “Operational Incentives” from section 222 of the FAA’s 2012 Reauthorization bill, or the more recent term, Aircraft Priority Access Selection Sequence (AirPASS) used in the 2013 NextGen Implementation Plan. But, what is BEBS exactly? And, do the current infrastructure, procedures, and technology even allow us to consider such a strategy?

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I recently participated in a panel discussion sponsored by RTCA at the Washington Convention Center.  The primary focus of the panel was to discuss the NextGen notion of “Best Equipped Best Served”.  I have a problem with the way this particular element is being batted around, because it connotes a winner/loser atmosphere which in reality doesn’t pay dividends nor supports that which we all in the industry embrace, improved service for all.  Let me give you a couple of examples especially as relates to the PBN or RNP strategies and associated activity. 

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The Reauthorization of the Federal Aviation Administration was finally completed the end of January. While much has been said about the Reauthorization, not much has been said about its adequacy.

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As we reflect on where we are and ponder resolutions for the coming year, I think of NextGen and some of the subtle, but significant, experiences of the past year. The NextGen we need requires change. Yet, we know change does not come easily. In fact, I have seen a recurring resistance to change.

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A quick look back at 2011 reveals lots of activity, some real good, some not so good.  I feel compelled to reflect ever so briefly on one of the major happenings towards the end of the year.  It was the resignation of Randy Babbitt as Administrator of the FAA.  Clearly this took all of us by surprise, and to be sure it was a sad event by all accounts.  I believe that many of us could find it in our hearts to forgive most people of a DUI offense, especially if there was no damage done except to the offender.  Alas there is zero tolerance for this sort of thing, especially for the Administrator of the FAA.  So his departure was a forgone conclusion.

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On a recent vacation to Germany, we found ourselves spending a considerable amount of time on the autobahn. Over the years, I have marveled at the interesting differences in cultures, values, thinking patterns, and design. We both have the same problem at hand. A lot of people want to go from point A to point B. We want to allow them to move as quickly, safely, and efficiently as possible. Yet, for some reason, we’ve come up with approaches that seem to be totally different.

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For a long time now the talk among most people in the industry I’ve come in contact with has been about globalization, harmony, no borders, blending NextGen with SESAR, in terms of technology, procedures and timing.  I believe this is all good stuff, and frankly the right way to go as the world becomes smaller and air travel becomes more affordable and more widely available to so many, especially in developing nations.  Recently, I spent time at the US-China Aviation Summit, and clearly that message was foremost on nearly everyone’s agenda.  Sure there was lots of talk about their needs as they prepare their country for 4-60 more airports in the next 20 years, and their need for technology and infrastructure, airplanes, crews, and the list goes on, almost limitless.  These folks and others who are beginning to see the wisdom in creating and maximizing their aviation industries, are poised to garner every kind of assistance available, whether in terms of experience, or products.  There are partnerships all over the world where employment opportunity is available for companies not necessarily headquartered there or not.  While I don’t have specific figures, it’s fair to say that even in China, many big and small American companies employ Chinese workers.  I suspect this is a solid and rewarding business decision by those long entrenched or by those trying to break into a burgeoning market.  I recall the difficulty we at Metron Aviation faced when trying to garner some of the SESAR work early on, and were pretty much told that unless we had a footprint in Europe, it wasn’t likely that we might enjoy some of the business opportunities over there.  Yet, there were and continue to be rather large American companies deeply involved in SESAR as the “globalization” rationale continues to be the back beat of the industry’s music.   We spend countless hours talking and acting in “collaboration” all around the world, believing that this is the right way to effect change and build the best products and procedures.  We include elements from every part of the industry, especially as we move ahead in operational terms.  Seeing air traffic controllers, dispatchers, and meteorological types, along with traffic managers, pilots, and airport operators, just to name a nominal group, explore and execute system improvements is very satisfying indeed.  It wasn’t that long ago when I was an air traffic controller, that I made decisions for the airlines.  I decided who could takeoff and land, with no idea as to the impact to an airlines business model.  As we embraced collaborative decision making (CDM), I found it an eye opener and moved to re-establish my role as someone who could afford a slot without necessarily determining who or what aircraft should fill it.  Leaving this decision where it best belonged, to the operator.  The foundation of Air Traffic Flow Management is now in collaboration, and rightly so.  Through those early years of CDM, more and more was learned and shared among industry groups, resulting in a whole new way to conduct business.  Putting every stakeholder in a position to both participate in a plans development and eager to execute it.  The days of gaming each other were quickly on the decline, and there was a new vigor around how the system would perform.
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